Fast Forward: A Pre-Internet Story
The Melbourne fanzine that inspired Seattle’s Sub Pop has been given a new lease on life online. Words by RENÉ SCHAEFER.
Bruce Milne is the embodiment of punk attitude. Nothing he has done in his 50-odd years on this planet has been motivated by profit – and he’s done a lot of things, from working at Melbourne’s fabled but soon-to-be-closed Missing Link Records, to starting his own label Au Go Go in 1979. He’s written for fanzines and national music publications, was a radio presenter on Triple R, operated the Au Go Go record shop, and became the proprietor of The Tote Hotel until its well-publicised forced closure in 2010.
What has driven Milne in all these ventures has been his deep-rooted love of independent music and its attendant culture. It’s what led him to fill his East Melbourne flat with rooms full of vinyl records, vintage artwork and memorabilia. Much of this collection has been sold off to recoup debts arising from the legal battle to keep The Tote alive, but his spirits remain un-dimmed.
Recently, Milne was amused and flattered to discover that, unbeknownst to him, a chapter from his early history had been unearthed and given a new lease of life on the internet. From November 1980 to October 1982 he published the pioneering cassette magazine Fast Forward, alongside co-editor Andrew Maine and graphic designer Michael Trudgeon. It was a radical concept at the time, and one which instantly resonated with the emerging post-punk scene in Australia and overseas.
Over the course of its 13 issues, the concept remained consistent: to intersperse music by local and international independent bands with interviews, while also providing a printed zine component. Both cassette and zine were presented in specially designed, screen-printed vinyl pouches. It was a revolutionary idea which precipitated a flood of similar publications around the world and, according to Milne, even inspired the birth of Seattle’s influential Sub Pop record label.
Fast Forward was instrumental in introducing people here and overseas to the likes of Laughing Clowns, The Go-Betweens, The Scientists, experimental composer Jon Rose, Pel Mel, the M Squared label and Dead Can Dance, while also presenting rare tracks such as The Young Charlatans’ original version of the Rowland S Howard-penned ‘Shivers’, and many other hard to come by demos and live tracks. Interview subjects included the likes of Nick Cave, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Mark E Smith of The Fall and the manager of The Clash.
Copies of Fast Forward are virtually impossible to come by these days, so their availablity for download from a dedicated website is quite a noteworthy event in terms of Australia’s still woefully under-documented music history. Musician and audio engineer Greg Wadley is responsible for setting up the site, as an offshoot of his long-running underground music label Spill. Wadley is a man with a long and illustrious career in unpopular music, among them Brisbane punk band The Pits in the late ’70s, Tex Deadly & The Dum Dums, New Waver, Solids and Hi God People, with whom he still performs today.
‘A historian’s treasure trove’
Greg, what prompted you to put this archive online?
A Brisbane muso from my era gave me a set of mp3s of all 13 issues on a memory stick one day. There was so much that I couldn’t really deal with it at first, but I listened to it a few months later and I was just in awe of how much interesting stuff there was. It’s a historian’s treasure trove, especially with all the printed material as well. I realised I needed to turn this into a website. I thought it would take about two hours. It didn’t.
I knew that where he got it from was a blog download site called That Striped Sunlight Sound. Those guys digitised it and did the scans and everything. I acknowledge them on the website. The problem with blogs like that, and this is not a criticism, is that they put so much stuff up that they can’t do it in a web page format. Instead, the download is just one massive file, and it’s in some obscure zip format, so you need special software to unlock it. It’s not very user-friendly.
The download sites they go through aren’t very user-friendly either, so I thought I’m not going to tell everyone on Facebook to download this gigantic file, but make a standard website design instead, where all the different tracks from all the different issues are listed and it’s much easier to get them. That means you can just listen to the bits you are interested in. Then I managed to get in contact with Bruce via Facebook and asked him if he minded me doing this. He said it was alright. Bruce doesn’t read Facebook very often, so I only had about three conversations with him over the period of a few months. I haven’t actually heard whether he likes it. I hope he does.
Were you aware of Fast Forward when you were living in Brisbane in the early 1980s?
We used to get it in Brisbane. I don’t know of anyone who bought every issue, but they were certainly around. By the time Fast Forward came out, I was in a band and therefore in the scene. If somebody got something like this, they would pass it around to everybody. If somebody bought a copy, we’d all get to hear it eventually. We’d listen to the whole thing all the way through, because we had longer attention spans back then.
What you’ve got here is a pre-internet story, which is the background to all of this. It’s almost impossible to imagine now, even for us oldies who grew up in this era. If you read something or heard something it was because you held in your hand a physical object. It wasn’t particularly easy to copy that object. Communication was like that as well – you almost never communicated with people in another city or another country. To make an STD phone call was a bit of a big deal. You’d send a hand-written letter occasionally. This thing from Melbourne was just incredibly exotic.
‘I was right there at ground zero’
I dropped around to Bruce Milne’s flat, where over a few beers we dissected not only the history of Fast Forward, but also its context within Australia’s post-punk music scene. Being the effusive talker that he is, Milne delved into other aspects of his career and provided some invaluable insights into music culture in general along the way.
Have you had a look at the website?
I had a look when he was just setting it up. Greg got in touch with me via Facebook, but I’m not someone who uses Facebook very often. I’d always go “email me”, because it would always take me three weeks to reply to his messages.
It looks really good and there is a nice written commentary. What inspired you to start a cassette zine back in those days?
I was so fanatical about music. I was running gigs and pretending to be managing bands, starting a record label and working at Missing Link, and doing radio shows. When the whole punk thing happened I was right there at ground zero. There was a sense that finally our kind of music had come along. I knew it was incredibly important at the time, so I was trying to document it in any way that I could. By the time I started Fast Forward, in late 1980, I had already been writing for the major music magazines, but also doing fanzines for a number of years. As anyone who writes about music knows, you get to a stage where you go, “This is a great record, but there are a limited number of adjectives I can use to describe it.” This frustrated me, but I wanted people to know about this music.
One of the radio shows I was doing was Demo Derby on 3RRR, which presented all the best of the demo tapes that were sent in. I had developed a lot of skills in the studio, working with cassettes and the quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape machines in the studio. In those days, editing still meant physically splicing tape, which I was doing with Andrew Maine. The quality of cassettes had gotten a lot better since they were introduced, and they were a lot cheaper. Up until the late ’70s, cassettes were pretty crappy, really.
I was sitting down with Andrew and another friend called Michael Trudgeon, who was a designer, and came up with the idea of doing a music magazine that incorporated the written word, photos, and a cassette that goes with it, which wouldn’t have to be just music, but could include interviews. It was another way to get stuff out to people.
In a way it was like a radio program.
Yes, but the problem with doing a show on 3RRR was that the broadcast range in those days was pretty small, and even though a lot of people in inner Melbourne were listening to the shows, I kept thinking that no one in Sydney was hearing this stuff. Because I had the record label, I was just fanatical about that stuff. I was listening to everything and hearing amazing things from around the world, but I couldn’t afford to put them out. Then we clicked on this idea and it all came together really quickly.
The cassettes we used for the first three issues were off-casts from manufacturers, which had pre-recorded music on them. We de-magnetised them with this machine at the station. Originally we packaged them in a 7” record bag, with a folded sheet of paper around them. As soon as we put out the first one, it just went crazy. By the time the third issue came out, this whole cassette zine revolution had clicked in around the world. Suddenly cassettes were the new medium.
People spent a lot of time recording music off the radio too, before going out to buy the records on import or whatever.
Exactly. The people who insisted at the time that home taping was killing music were absolutely wrong. It was what was keeping it alive and thriving. We were fortunate that we had 3RRR, which was really free and easy in those days. Nobody was using the editing suites at the station between midnight and 3am, so we’d just sit in there for hours editing and dubbing tapes. Taking a lot of speed helped.
Then, because we had good sales of the first few issues, Michael realised we could develop the design side a bit more. That’s how the idea of the screen-printed plastic covers came about. He designed the wallets and we had them specially manufactured. It was an obvious progression and then it just really exploded. Cassette magazines were appearing all over the world and were swapping with each other.
Was Fast Forward the first ever cassette zine?
I would claim it was, but there might be people out there who have a better grasp of the chronology. There might have been some more sound-art based ones prior to us.
You were saying earlier you were convinced that the music that was happening at that time was important. What gave you that sense?
It was a generational thing, I guess. I was 18 in 1975, but there was no music revolution going on. The glam thing, which I had been slightly interested in, had died down. A lot of the interesting German stuff had been watered down by then. Pub rock was huge, but that wasn’t my scene. People were always talking about how revolutionary rockabilly, or The Who, or The Yardbirds had been, but that was an older generation’s music. The Who By Numbers, which was current at the time, was the worst thing they’d put out. The Rolling Stones’ Black And Blue didn’t have one good song on it. Don’t tell me this is as good as it gets.
In the end, punk was just pulling all that down and re-building. It was all the re-building that was going on which was interesting. Punk gets categorised as all this spiky-haired stuff, but that was all a bit later, ’78-’79 or thereabouts. At first there was a real sense that we were pulling it down and creating our own music. That could be The Ramones, but it could also be Pere Ubu or The Pop Group. The rules no longer existed and everybody could re-write them. And everybody could fuck it up, but it was just so exciting.
Maybe this still happens now, and it probably happens in other genres of music too, but in those days you just had to be constantly searching, because the sounds that were emerging were just so amazing. Finding records was really hard in those days. I remember when a friend of mine got a copy of [Television’s first single] ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ before I did. He had to play it to people over the phone, because everyone was so desperate to hear it. The punk thing started and it got a bit corny after a while, but the post-punk stuff was a continuation of that spirit. And that’s the era where Fast Forward fits in.
It was also a time where music was no longer handed down by all-powerful record companies, and people started to generate a discourse about music culture themselves. Not only could anybody make music, but the process by which it was appreciated was becoming less passive and more interactive.
I fully agree. One of the things about punk was that we felt that we had to destroy these gatekeepers, such as radio as it existed then, the music press, even the record shops to some extent. People sneered at you if you wanted to buy something other than a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young record. That’s why I started a record label. Of course, now all that has died too. In a way that’s great, because that’s destroyed another level of gatekeepers, myself included. It’s weird, because someone like myself, who has always been taking risks, not based on financial decisions, can no longer be part of it. I’ve always tried to facilitate new interesting music, but the way I’ve always done it is so old-school now. There are other people now, who can do it in all sorts of new ways, which is great.
There was also a sense that Australian music was coming into its own in the early ’80s, because local musicians were no longer beholden to what was happening overseas. A lot of the Australian artists covered in Fast Forward had very distinctive sounds.
The bands that we were championing, whether it was The Laughing Clowns, The Birthday Party, The Go-Betweens, or The Triffids, came to be seen as important bands. At the time, the difference between the mainstream and “alternative” music was so unbelievably huge. Everything that those bands sold, collectively, wouldn’t equal what one Cold Chisel single sold.
Greg Wadley told me that people in Brisbane wouldn’t actually go to see a band like The Laughing Clowns. They were seen as a bit of a joke because of their “unprofessional” attitude.
The number of times that anything I’ve been involved with has been described as “unprofessional”… [Laughter]. I think we were part of a genuine change in music culture. That’s why doing Fast Forward felt so satisfying at the time. We couldn’t get them out quickly enough. We were getting bands from all over the world, contacting us all the time.
That mix of local and international content put Australian music into a broader context. It wasn’t just some parochial little thing – not that it translated into acceptance overseas.
That’s always been a major source of frustration for me. I thought we came from an amazingly creative musical place in Australia, or in my case Melbourne, and I always assumed that the moment would come where the whole world would go, “Wow, this is the new Liverpool or Seattle”, but it just never seems to happen. It doesn’t make any sense when you have this much creativity in one place. You can read a year’s worth of Mojo magazines and you’re lucky if you ever come across one article about an Australian band. Where’s the recognition?
Back in the day, mainstream Australian music magazines like Juke and RAM covered a lot of new Australian music, though. \ Well, I was writing for RAM, and so were Stuart Coupe and Clinton Walker. Juke was a lost cause though. I wish I had the Juke review of the first Saints single. It said something like, “This sounds like a bad Ol’55 cover.” They were so out of touch, talking about a record that everybody knew was revolutionary as being badly recorded and somehow related to a rock’n’roll revival. What planet were they on? Too busy trying to get Sherbet interviews, I guess.
With post-punk, bands seemed to stop being influenced by rock’n’roll of the past altogether.
It almost turned into a cliche in the early-’80s, actually. People said, “Oh, we’re not actually influenced by music at all – we’re into this artist, or painter, or film.”
Fast Forward lasted for 13 issues. What happened in the end?
We were selling thousands of copies of each issue, most of which were going overseas. Rough Trade distributed them throughout Europe and America. What happened was that Andrew and I, who were the two editors, developed diverging musical tastes. At the same time, because we actually sold a lot of copies and started to make money, a lot of people wanted to invest in Fast Forward. We just couldn’t agree on a number of things. We could have been a lot more successful by going more mainstream, but I wasn’t interested in doing that.
It wasn’t wrong of Andrew to want to make a living out of it, but I didn’t like the idea of trying to satisfy investors and so I pulled out of Fast Forward. Andrew kept it going for a while and changed the name to Crowd. I think he published one or two issues of that. It was based more on Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, with the addition of a cassette. In my mind, it was more based around fashion. You’ve got to remember the times, though – people were into the New Romantic stuff by then. [Fashion magazine] The Face had just started, and music was no longer the main focus.
One of the interesting things from 1975 to the early ’80s was that music seemed to be the art leader. Music seemed to inspire the painters and the filmmakers. Howard Arkley, for example, was a music fan who became a painter. You can see the inspiration of music in his work. Jenny Watson painted The Go-Betweens’ portraits for their first album cover. All this kind of stuff was happening and fashion was being influenced by music. Being in the music scene, which was feeding all this creativity, felt like you were at the centre of something.
By the mid-‘80s, art and music seemed to diverge again, and music reverted to a simpler, more conservative, rock’n’roll aesthetic again, with genres like swamp rock and cow-punk becoming popular.
Absolutely, and I was a huge fan of that style of music, partly because I was reacting against the fact that fashion was taking over music. We went back to a much more known form of music. The experimentation that was so alive in the music of the early ’80s just died off. Because I’ve always been involved in music, I see that period as part of a timeline, but it is a very personal interpretation, of course. Other people from the time might have completely different impressions. I was just as excited about the records I put out in 1997 or 2000.
In 10 years’ time we’ll probably be talking about what happened in the ’90s, which would be a really interesting topic as well. We’re playing catch up in a way by talking about this time period now. I always feel like music in Australia hasn’t been documented very well, and there is a lot of it that flew under the radar, so it’s worthwhile talking now about something that happened 30 years ago.
I fully agree. I was trying to document it at the time, because I thought it was important then.
There isn’t much real documentation out there. Stuart Coupe and Glenn A. Baker published a great book called The New Rock’n’Roll – The A-Z of Rock in the ’80s around 1983, which contained a lot of information about relatively obscure Australian bands, and treated them with equal seriousness as their overseas contemporaries. Fast Forward was mentioned in this book as well. Clinton Walker’s Inner City Sounds and Stranded were also hugely influential in documenting aspects of that era.
I actually caught up with Stuart and Clinton Walker in Sydney recently. Clinton’s lecturing at university and he’s always writing and pitching books that no one wants to publish. Or if they do, they don’t sell. He’s become fascinated with this huge female indigenous R&B vocalists’ scene, which was happening in the ’60s and early ’70s, but which remains largely undocumented. A handful of them actually moved overseas and became quite successful. He came across these artists as he was researching Buried Country, but they didn’t fit into the country genre. This is what he’s pitching at the moment, but he can’t find anyone who wants to print it. I would have thought SBS and various publishers would have jumped on this.
That’s a real shame. There aren’t really many books about Australian music at all.
Every city overseas has a university press that actively seeks out that sort of thing, but this culture just doesn’t exist in Australia. Clinton has got this information and knowledge that needs to be documented. I keep telling him if he’s smart he would set up a website and generate interest that way, or by writing an article for The Monthly.
I’m always excited when people do it off their own bat, like Iain MacIntyre and Ian Marks did with their book about ’60s Australian and New Zealand garage rock, Wild About You. It’s fantastic, but again it’s so long overdue.
I took a copy of that book to Japan with me and gave it to a music writer over there and he almost wet himself, he was so excited. It absolutely blew his mind and he wants to write about that book. I don’t know if it’ll sell, but it’s such a beautiful book. There are so many photos no one’s ever seen before.
Getting back to Fast Forward, when I pulled out of it, I thought we were at the start of a cassette revolution. I don’t know what happened, because I thought the Fast Forward idea was a really strong one. We were selling a lot of copies. Fast Forward disappeared, but I thought other people would carry the flame.
After the post-punk era of the early-’80s, music culture became very stylised, fashion-oriented, glossy and highly packaged again. It was all about slick product all of a sudden.
At first all that was done in an ironic way, with bands like ABC and Frankie Goes To Hollywood and that kind of thing. It all fragmented into sub-groups. I became a lot more interested in swampy, rootsy music, which wasn’t kowtowing to any mainstream acceptance. When we started Fast Forward, there were no such things as music videos. MTV really changed music dramatically.
“You can read a year’s worth of Mojo magazines and you’re lucky if you ever come across one article about an Australian band. Where’s the recognition?”
The emphasis went back from a fan-driven culture to having a product handed down to you by big record companies. A band like Laughing Clowns, who had these home-made film clips, couldn’t compete with that. That’s why it was important to have other voices like Fast Forward. Do you think you had an impact on Australia’s music culture?
I know we did, because we were selling so many copies overseas. It certainly helped with the success of those bands, whether it was The Scientists, The Moodists, or the Laughing Clowns. It helped them pull their fingers out of their arses and go overseas. We were so isolated in Australia back then, that no one even contemplated going overseas. This was pre-internet, of course. Communication was so slow. Everything was done by mail. If you were buying records or magazines from overseas, they would take ages to arrive. Any information was so hard to get.
I suppose the flip-side of that was that people worked a lot harder and you felt a lot better when you achieved something. The feedback we were getting, the letters and tapes that people kept sending us, were what kept us going.
Record shops were really important at the time too, being the places where people went to find out about new music and exchange information.
It was fantastic to work at Missing Link and Greville Records. I didn’t set up Au Go Go as a shop until a few years later, probably around ’87. Record shops were the epicenter of information, where you went to find out about gigs and bands that weren’t The Angels. It was exciting to pour through record lists that came from overseas. I really miss that feeling, seeing that I worked in record shops pretty much from the moment I left school. People would come in with a real thirst for something new. They’d ask, “Tell me what I need”, and the people who worked there were passionate about these things. Again, they were more gatekeepers who were eventually destroyed, and maybe we’ve lost something because of that.
Was copyright ever an issue when you were compiling the content for Fast Forward?
Certainly it was an issue. We used to have simple forms and we didn’t claim to have the copyright on the material that we used. It stopped us from doing some things, especially towards the end, when so many bands from around the world wanted to be on it. Probably one of the breakthrough moments was when we had The Cure, who were one of the biggest bands in the world at that time. Their manager, who also ran their label at Polydor, said, “We love what you’re doing. We need a simple agreement, but go ahead, and here are some interesting tracks for you.” Previous to that, we were still battling with the bigger record companies who thought that cassettes were killing the music business, so they didn’t want to know about it and refused to give the rights to this and that.
Is it true that Sub Pop in America was inspired by Fast Forward?
Yes. Bruce Pavitt, who started Sub Pop, contributed tracks to us. He began his label by putting out cassettes. The reason Au Go Go started putting out Sub Pop’s records later on in the ’80s was because for 10 years we had been swapping cassettes of bands that we loved and had established a relationship that way. Fast Forward definitely inspired him to set up the label. I’ve got a letter from him which states that. Seattle was a bit like Australia and New Zealand – very isolated. That’s why they had so much interesting music going on. There was no chance of their bands being successful. In an era of hair metal and new romantics, there were bands creating this interesting stuff. It was as much inspired by Australian music as by Black Flag and Minor Threat.
That’s right, I recall that they loved The Scientists, feedtime and Cosmic Psychos. I used to read the US magazine Forced Exposure in the mid-’80s and they always covered Australian and NZ bands as well.
[Forced Exposure editor] Byron Coley was incredible. He was one of the very first people from America who wrote to me and we used to swap records throughout the ’80s. I’d send him anything from Australia that I thought was interesting and he’d do the same thing. The reason I put out Sonic Youth, Big Black and Butthole Surfers records through Au Go Go was because of Byron. He put me onto all those, which helped establish those bands here. At first they didn’t sell anything. Au Go Go put out [Sonic Youth’s] Bad Moon Rising, Evol and Sister, which sold about 500 copies, but then we did Daydream Nation, which sold 2000. I went, “Man, we’ve got a number one record”! We couldn’t believe it.
It was such a pleasant experiences working with those bands back then. It was before ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ hit in the early ’90s, which changed the music industry so much. Prior to that, people who were involved with [independent] music had to be in it for love, because there was no money to be made. Then suddenly, after putting out records for years and years, I’d be sitting down with young bands that I wanted to work with, and they’d be asking for $10,000 for a film clip. And I would have to say, “No, that’s something Sony would do. It’s not how I work.” In the mid-’90s it was just horrible. The attitude to playing music just seemed to change.
The Fast Forward cassette archive can be found here.
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